The Epics Need to be Revisited, says Author Ira Mukhoty

Author Ira Mukhoty
Author Ira Mukhoty

Author Ira Mukhoty tells about bringing forth a symphony of Draupadi’s voice steeped in anger and reasoning

From pharmaceutical marketing to historical research, how did the transition happen?

The road from pharmaceutical marketing to historical non-fiction was long and torturous, but it gave me the opportunity to use two of my apparently unconnected skills—a training in natural sciences, and a love of writing. After some rather dreary years in pharmaceutical research, I spent some years in the wilderness, wondering about a way in which I could use my love of writing instead.

I eventually realised, through the help of a perceptive publisher, that in the writing of history I could find a way to combine my different skill sets.  All my books are grounded in a physical reality which comes out of a great deal of research around the conditions which existed around the time in which my books are set. After this research is completed, I try and weave it into a structure which flows like a story. 

How relevant is Draupadi’s story today?

Draupadi’s story, and indeed that of many of the women characters of the Mahabharat, remains even more relevant today, as we increasingly begin to question the established patriarchal and Brahminical structure of our society. Many women are keen to lead lives that fulfil their greatest potential, and they are interested in knowing how that can be done while also living in a society that greatly limits the freedoms that are available to women. Draupadi’s story shows us how a woman in ancient India navigated a suffocating society and expressed her rage at this society in which she was humiliated and debased despite her virtues. She gives a legitimate, lucid, and fiery voice to the outrage that many women feel at the injustice in a system which circumscribes their lives.
In recent years, there has been a flowering of retellings of the Ramayana and Mahabharat. What could be the reason?

Since the epics are such a beloved, pan-Indian text, it is natural that it should have been revisited endlessly by various groups of people wishing to identify with the characters, and understand their own lives through these characters. And so, for example, we have had Dalits re-examining the life of Ekalavya, and trying to imagine an alternative destiny for him. Similarly, in the 21st century, the urban, English-speaking section of society is also looking for meaning in these ancient texts. As our lives become progressively more nuclear, more detached from our older roots, we are looking to other sources, and the epics are one obvious source of those stories.
Your book shows that the world of the Mahabharat was similar to the one we inhabit. Tell us more about it.

When researching the social structures existing in the Age of the Epics, I was interested to note that this era was a time of transition from an earlier age, when there seem to have been greater freedom for women and fewer restrictions of caste, to the later Vedic age when gradually society became a great deal more regimented. We can see how in the Mahabharat there was already a great deal of anxiety about the sexual chastity of women, about the ownership of women’s wombs, and the potentially catastrophic consequences for men of the sexual freedom of women. This resulted in society becoming much more intolerant of widow remarriage, for example.

I was horrified to find out about the ultimate tragic destiny of the Kaurava widows and so I incorporated their story into Song of Draupadi too. Sati became prevalent, and the married status for women was fetishised. Other evils begin to creep in too, such as the debasement of people who were outside of the social hierarchy, such as tribal peoples. For example, the way in which Kunti was so easily able to sacrifice a tribal woman and her five children to burn to death in the house of lac, comes from a sense of their lives being less precious than that of kshatriyas. Even Bhim’s son Ghatotkacha is never given the same respect and consideration because he is the son of a forest dwelling tribal. I therefore tried to show the taint of these prejudices wherever it was possible, without disrupting the cadence of the story.

Despite the patriarchy, there are resolute women in this retelling.

My aim was to understand the ways in which the women were able to express their desires and ambitions, and direct some of the action of the epic, even while inhabiting the patriarchy of ancient India. For some of the women, this ambition and drive remain firmly within the ambit of the patriarchal structure. They use their intelligence and iron will to direct the action whose aim is to produce heirs, which they realise is the ultimate prize in this social structure. 

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